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28 January 2023

Congratulations on being the Universal Woman – now leave the rest of us alone

We’ve become stuck in an era of forced relatability. Time to set ourselves free.

By Marie Le Conte

Well hello there, reader! Are you, person in front of your screen, the Universal Woman? Would you like to find out if you are? It’s easy to figure out.

First of all, are you a woman? You may keep reading if you aren’t, of course, but you cannot be the Universal Woman in that case. No hard feelings.

If you are a woman – well done to you! – please read the following statements and see if you relate to them:

• “I avoid leaving the house when it’s dark outside.”
• “I feel I should have no needs in relationships and will contort myself to appear to be the perfect partner to my boyfriend/husband, even if it makes me unhappy.”
• “I believe transgender people to be a threat to society.”

Do all three of these sentences apply to you, your beliefs and your life? If so, congratulations! You are the Universal Woman. Your experiences and habits are the ones every sane woman has. You are relatable, and you are right.

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If, for whatever reason, you did not relate to one or, god forbid, several of these statements, then aren’t you special? Aren’t you happy and smug, not being like the other girls? Would you like a medal, perhaps? Have you considered wondering why everything you do and say and think is an attempt to appeal to men?

If you think I have lost my marbles, allow me to offer you some background. The first point is straightforward. It came from Twitter, as these things often do, and was triggered by a Sainsbury’s advert.

“For walks in the park or strolls after dark,” was the tagline that accompanied a picture of an unremarkable midi dress. “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA,” was the response of one woman, which was especially popular. “THEY THINK WE STROLL IN THE DARK.” The backlash was such that Sainsbury’s pulled the ad.

(Hang on, who’s “we”?)

The second point is a bit knottier, and comes and goes in online discourse. It arguably began with “The Crane Wife“, a beautiful and maudlin essay written by a woman who had left the man she was due to marry. In it, she compared herself to a story from Japanese folklore, in which a crane marries a man and tricks him into believing she is human by plucking her feathers every night, while he sleeps.

“To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work,” she wrote. “I had arrived in my thirties believing that to need things from others made you weak,” she explained elsewhere in the piece. “I think this is true for lots of people but I think it is especially true for women.”

(Wait, is it?)

Another essay about another break-up went viral recently. In it, the writer posited that “the ability to bend an inch at a time while seeming to stand up straight is a useful and gendered skill. Most women I know do it regularly. They bend until they’re pretzeled and then blame themselves for the body aches.”

(They do? Really?)

Last but definitely not least is the never-ending debate on transgender issues, which you cannot have missed unless you live both under a rock and without access to the internet or newspapers. The problem, we are told, lies in the competing needs and demands of women and trans people. Countless pieces have been written using this framing. Having done the online equivalent of closing my eyes and throwing a dart, I landed on the Times’s “Nicola Sturgeon’s gender law is another blow to women”, but many others could have been picked.

(Which “women”?)

Hopefully you now get the gist. Something happened at some point recently and it is now in vogue, again, to claim that women are from Venus. There are traits, needs and flaws that we all share, and it is possible to speak, with some authority, on behalf of womankind. It is maddening.

It is obviously true that women living in a patriarchal society can function as a political class – we get raped more and paid less, not because of our individual characteristics but because of our identity – but that doesn’t mean we can all be flattened into one. To lazily use myself as an example, I frequently walk alone in the dark, both because of early winter sunsets and because I love nothing more than walking home late at night when it is still warm outside. I do not recognise myself in these tropes about heterosexual relationships, despite having had my fair share of disappointments. I do not believe that trans people’s lives getting easier will make my life worse.

As I am typing all this, I can picture the eyerolls. Don’t I think I’m special? Isn’t it rewarding feeling oh, so different? It isn’t, actually. I can tell you. For the most part it feels deeply alienating and a bit sad. No one enjoys feeling left out.

I’m also not convinced that I’m unique in that sense. It’s just that we’re stuck in an era of forced relatability, where things must be universal otherwise they may as well be meaningless. Or perhaps it’s a by-product of feminism becoming so prominent again: there’s been so much focus on what we have in common that it’s become tempting to overreach.

Or maybe – maybe – it’s that we were stuck in moulds set for us by society for so long that we reflexively choose to be reductive about our gender. Learned behaviours are hard to discard entirely, especially when we don’t realise we have them. The first step to letting go of the Universal Woman, then, is to realise that we created her but she has no reason to exist. Once she is destroyed, we can all be free.

[See also: UK inflation rate is substantially higher for women]

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